If the NHL draft has taught us anything over the years, there very well could be a kid chosen in the fifth round who turns out to be a superstar and it’s not inconceivable that someone taken in the top five might never play an NHL game. Heck, there might be an 18-year-old playing Jr. C in some backwater town in Ontario who will end up in the Hall of Fame someday. So why can’t the same thing happen with a little-known Russian who was passed over in last year’s draft?
When the Columbus Blue Jackets took Yegor Chinakhov with the 21 overall pick, it had more than a few observers scrambling for their notes. He didn’t appear on any of the credible pre-draft lists as a first- or even second-rounder. That included The Hockey News, which did not have him among its top 100 prospects. Might have something to do with our prospect/draft guru Ryan Kennedy tweeting after the pick: “I do not know who Yegor Chinakhov is.” When Ryan Kennedy and Steven Ellis of THN don’t know who you are, do you even exist?
Well, the Blue Jackets definitely know who he is, and with no second-round pick, were not prepared to risk waiting until Round 3, where they picked up Montreal’s pick in the Josh Anderson trade, to pick a player their scouts had in their top 10. “With all due respect, we have our scouts for a reason and that’s who we believe in,” said Blue Jackets GM and NHL cowboy Jarmo Kekalainen. “And their list is the most important thing. We’ve been watching this guy and following this guy all year and he was very high on our list. We didn’t want to take a chance of moving back, even though we considered it long and hard. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you want a guy and he’s really the only guy that you have that high and separates himself from the other group of players that’s still available, you take him.”
Chinakhov does possess a good skill level and can produce offense, having scored 27 goals and 69 points last season in 56 games, which was good for fifth in Russia’s junior league. But there was probably not a player in the draft who benefitted more from playing this season before the draft. He impressed with five goals and seven points in 12 KHL games for Avangard Omsk, including a recent game Kekalainen pointed out in which Chinakhov played 21-plus minutes against CSKA. “He just keeps improving,” Kekalainen said of Chinakhov. “He played 21:30 in his last KHL game and everyone who knows (Avangard Omsk coach) Bob Hartley knows that he’s not handing out ice time for free. You’ve got to earn it. (Hartley) speaks very highly of Chinakhov as well.”
Chinakhov’s father, Vitali, is also a former player. In fact, he was drafted 235 overall (a draft slot that no longer exists) in 1991 by the New York Rangers, but never played a game in the NHL. And it’s not as though Chinakhov stumbled out of a pumpkin patch. He was part of the Russian team that won gold in the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and, given Russia’s penchant for choosing older players for its World Junior team, could very well be an important part of that country’s team in this year’s tournament. Kekalainen said the fact that he’s 19 doesn’t necessarily make him more NHL-ready than other players in the draft and despite the fact his KHL contract ends after this season, don’t appear to have any urgency to rush him along. “He’s a player we see a tremendous upside with,” Kekalainen said. “We think he’s going to be a top-two-line player in the National Hockey League.”
What you have to remember is that the draft simply assigns a players’ NHL rights exclusively to one organization. That’s done on the basis of a meritocracy based on what scouts who watch them play think of their potential. Sometimes they’re right and other times they’re wildly wrong. Think of Brayden Point. He was a third-round pick and the fourth player the Tampa Bay Lightning took in the 2014 draft. Artemi Panarin wasn’t even picked. That’s why we have such fun doing drafts five, 10 and 15 years after they happen.